We live in interesting TV times. DVD players are as common as toasters. Basic Blu-ray players offer high-def flicks at prices we can (almost) afford. And now, if you can’t bother to go to the store or wait for a disc to arrive, you finally have some enticing download options.
The biggest news, of course, is the recent arrival of Roku's streaming Netflix Player, which is finally giving the company a service to match its name. The Netflix Player joins two other on-demand boxes: Vudu, which premiered last September, and Apple TV, which got upgraded to a movie-playing box in February. So, what’s the best way to go?
Value: For cheapskate movie lovers, nothing comes close to Netflix. For about $150 upfront and $9 bucks a month, you can watch virtually anything ever filmed, anytime you want. Shell out $45 for a basic upscaling DVD player such as the Philips DVP3960 (a newer version of the model I used for testing), and watch any of 100,000 titles—movies and TV episodes—on discs delivered by mail ($9 for one disc at a time, $14 for two at a time, etc.). While you’re waiting for new disc deliveries, use the $99 streaming box from Roku for an included, all-you-can-eat selection of 10,000 titles.
Watchability: In less-challenging scenes with good lighting, the differences between the Netflix Player and its competitors were negligible. But when it came to dimly lit shots, like a dark dinner scene from The Motorcycle Diaries, I felt like I was looking through a swarm of mosquitoes.
Still, even most differences were noticeable only when I stood an unhealthy three feet back from my loaner LG60—a slick 47-inch LCD TV. At about 12 feet, on the couch, they all looked great. For standard-definition films (i.e. most), Netflix's box wound up being the best choice due to price and sheer volume.
High-Def Smackdown: The Netflix Player drops out of the running here, since it’s currently restricted to SD video. “Netflix will offer movies in HD in the future," was the most info I could get out of spokesman Steve Swasey. But the Netflix mail-order service is still in the game. It provides all 600 or so titles currently on Blu-ray, handily beating the 330 HD downloads from Apple and dwarfing the 122 from Vudu.
Ease of Use: The Netflix Player has some new-product glitches, but they are surprisingly few. Oxymoronic as it sounds, the box hesitates to pause. I usually had to click the play/pause button several times to freeze the action. And the synch between the Web site and net-connected service isn’t always smooth. You go online to cue up videos to watch, and changes you make on the site should show up within seconds on the player. Sometimes they did. But once I had to wait a full half hour (and finally restart the box) before the list updated.
Otherwise it was a cinch to operate. The four-way directional buttons aren’t the slickest, but they make moving though a video smooth enough. Netflix actually has a very clever interface for this. Although it’s a streaming box with limited memory, it has enough to store thumbnails representing different parts of the video. When you scroll through these and click one, the box retrieves the part of the video you want in a few seconds. This is more efficient than Vudu's and Apple's, which can’t even show you a preview of a scene until after they have loaded it (up to half an hour for parts near the end of a movie).
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.